The most fascinating aspect of interviewing someone you’ve never met before is reconciling your expectations based on their work; the idea that you construct in your head beforehand can be way different from the reality of the encounter. I’d already heard about fashion designer Yang Li from a variety of people: fashion priestesses, artists, but also young kids and musicians that have very little to do with fashion. Highly dramatic yet down to earth, his show gave me goose bumps — for a fashion show that may sound like an exaggeration, yet it happened. I needed to meet this kid.
I wasn’t disappointed: he is a real trip, and a very nice one. I met Li in Paris just a few days after the presentation of his collection. Over many caffeinated drinks, our conversation ranged from fashion to art, sports, music and geography.
But in order to understand his vision, you really need to start from the beginning. Born in Beijing in 1987, Li grew up in an environment where access to the outside world was very limited. Communist China was not exactly an ideal place for cultivating talented young designers. “With no internet and very limited access to international press, my childhood was a sort a moment of waiting for change. I learned about rigor and structure, and that kind of discipline follows me in what I do today.” At the age of ten, he moved with his dad (a former ping-pong player) to Perth, where his mother was already living and working as an interpreter. Perth isn’t exactly the center of the world, considering that the nearest “big” city is Adelaide, which is more than a thousand miles away. But the city introduced Li to the culture of outdoor sports like skateboarding and surfing. “Skateboarding is a sport that is based on style. Skateboarders cultivate a language based on the look of their clothes — it’s just part of it. What is interesting to me about skating is that you are part of a community but you want to stand out with your own way of doing things. It’s subversive and self-expressive, yet based on an idea of belonging to a scene.”
After ten years in Perth, Li moved to London where he enrolled at Central Saint Martins. Pushed by his need to be where the beat was happening, and intrigued by the way Raf Simons combined references to music and art, Li needed to be around people he could relate to. Li left college to work for Simons for two years, then went back to London where he started his own brand in the East End.
After such a chaotic past, you might expect colorful and exotic collections inspired by skateboard culture and Chinese references. After all, London embraces eccentric design. Yet Li does the opposite. Clean lines and sharp color palettes have defined his collections. Everything is produced by the best manufactures in Italy, and his fabric quality is outstanding. But when you take a closer look, some garments have cuts and holes, a sort of subtle, poetic, punk gesture that translates the young designer’s conceptual approach into an aesthetic.
With models in Vans shoes, skateboard culture is definitely present in the spring/summer show. Still, it is not a first-level reference, but rather a conceptual contamination, a more deep and discreet clin d’oeil. We might speculate that some of the clothes are reminiscent of Chinese uniforms, but that reference vanishes as soon as you realize the incredible cut of each piece. Nothing is taken for granted in Li’s work. The mixture of references is balanced in a way that creates something fresh and quite luxurious.
By coffee number two, Li and I seem to be slightly bored talking about clothes. Talking about art and music, we discover we have common friends in the art world. It turns out he curated a show with artist/curator Item Idem, a sort of nomadic figure of the art world. Under the name of Bureau de Change, in a temporary location in Paris, Li and Item Idem created an installation in which objects from both the art and fashion worlds were placed in dialogue, questioning the status of high and low culture. “It is just part of my personality to explore new forms for communicating what I have to say. Fashion seems to be the one I feel closest to, but my interests range so that I feel open to new things. I hope my clothes translate my openness.”
By coffee number three we are talking about the use of texts in garments. Indeed, Li uses military patches — another means of making a statement in a context of conformity. It almost seems like Li’s message is that subversion is everywhere — among skaters and punks, but also soldiers or whoever has the urge to say something.
Earlier, immersed in the magic of his presentation, in which towering models in perfectly shaped clothes moved to Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” I was amazed by the element of controlled imperfection in Li’s garments: cuts, holes, simple words like “dream” written on a fur t-shirt. Is it punk? Maybe, but it’s also incredibly poetic. Li seems to tell us that you can still be subversive, controversial, yet also romantic and dreamy. In the end, when you think about it, these adjectives are all synonymous.